(City) Level Design Lead Reflection

By: Rob Moreno (Level Design Lead/Artist)

        This has been my third quarter with DePaul Originals Game Studios; throughout my time with the studio every opportunity has become more and more ambitious as we collectively reach for higher milestones. Each quarter we individually are learning so much not just about communication and the tools at our disposal, but becoming more comfortable with the production process as it becomes increasingly similar to a real game studio environment. This quarter I was given the responsibility of an Art/Level lead for the City level of Shadow that Pervades. This was a great challenge as I was very excited to lead a team of designers to reach a common goal. 


         Our task specifically for this quarter was to completely overhaul and redesign a new more compact city space. At the beginning of the quarter, I thought it was important to establish some idea of deadlines for where we as a team would want to be throughout the quarter. It also helped because we wanted to make sure the ideas for the new space were in scope as it appeared last quarter the city level was a bit too large to allow for an immersive experience. With my primary focus in environment art/ Lighting and Ataberk’s primary focus in Level Design, it was important to establish what would be an interesting, immersive, familiar, aesthetically pleasing space to play in. What were we trying to convey? What was the emotional tone? What were the main points of interest that we wanted to see focalized in the space? In the beginning few weeks, we looked at references from our city Chicago and what intriguing or memorable areas would be visually appealing to see in a game space. With that done we began drawing up blueprints on grid sheets and started photo bashing a storyboard for our level as you move from scene to scene. This helped to get everyone on the same page so we understood what unique aesthetic we had set for the city level. 


         Leading a team is a lot of work and with some new faces that joined the studio; it was a great experience into understanding just how important it is to set production deadlines and understanding the strengths and weaknesses as a team. I learned a lot about how to be a better leader by establishing chemistry with my team. With several different newcomers, I had to project what was possible for us as a team to accomplish in a 10 week production period. Some of my team members were fresh into Game Dev. and hadn’t touched many software development tools such as MAYA, Substance Painter, or even worked in a Game Engine before (more on this later) so as a leader I found that middle ground by not being too overbearing on them while still being able to get a decent amount of content and assets created in a timely fashion. Keep in mind that this is an entirely fresh start of space from the ground up so there are a lot of factors I may not touch on in this document that are challenges along the way that you don’t think of. For instance, getting scale correct in city space with a dog that you play as is highly underrated as a task. There were a lot of times we had to go back into MAYA and resize objects to make them appropriate for the world that we were trying to create. This is just one of the obstacles that some teams don’t necessarily think about when designing spaces. Throughout this quarter I became a lot more comfortable within Unreal Engine 4 particularly in lighting, baking, material/texture import process, a few optimization tricks when it comes to art, and last but not least perforce as getting newcomers adjusted to Servers was an interesting experience in itself and one of the best ways to learning something is teaching it to others in this case. 


        Although we accomplished a lot, there are always things that can be done better. I think we could have pushed the last four weeks a bit more in getting assets in and having a more polished final level than where we ended. There were still a decent amount of BSP objects that were in the space that I was hoping to have replaced with static meshes we made in MAYA. I also am upset with myself that we did not add in the Soul City assets earlier in the production line. My thought process was getting my teammates into MAYA or other software tools and bringing what they worked on into the build throughout the entire quarter, and this was a good way of boosting morale because as a designer when you see the thing you made actually in the playable space, it excites you, it just makes you want to bring in even more assets. I realized in the second half of the production line that we still needed a lot of assets that weren’t in the build and we only had so much time left which is why I decided that the aesthetics of some of the Soul City assets would work well into bringing the style that we were going for into the scene. Something that still takes time to grasp is the concept of perforce and having a build housed on a server for newcomers and this is understandable. Some of my teammates probably never interacted with servers before so it is something that takes getting used to and some hand-holding just to get a sense of how these systems work. I think a good idea Ataberk and I had set up was sublevels for each person on the team that way when they made changes, the majority of the time they were only affecting their sublevel and not the main level that contains all of them called the “Persistent”. Following that we knew that if we started having multiple people work in the same space, there would be a lot of overlapping, a lot of different ideas for how space should look and be arranged so we decided to assign specific parts of the level to each teammate. This was beneficial to prevent overlapping and it helped a lot with communicating back and forth between teammates seeing what they were doing with their piece of this space to create a more cohesive layout from start to finish. 



For Future Leads

        Anyone who is becoming a future lead Artist or Level Designer for D.O.G.S., just please keep in mind that you have to have patience. I think this quarter we were hit even harder with COVID-19 and it did hurt production somewhat but still just staying on top of things and communication is super important. Also, you have to be prepared to spend a lot of time outside of class to help your teammates out. A lot of newcomers on the city squad were unfamiliar with MAYA, modeling, poly count, Model issues/bugs, UV Mapping, exporting models, substance Painter, exporting textures from substance painter into Unreal 4, getting Unreal setup with Perforce, just to name a few, even things like how to make glass in Substance painter or how to properly set up materials is something that you have to take the time to show and demonstrate to your teammates. Everyone has different schedules so do your best to accommodate them, and don’t just send a video all the time. It helps to build a lot of chemistry when you can sit down in a discord chat for 30-45 minutes and explain how these things work. Not only are they learning something but now they can help to teach that to others going forward and it only makes us more versatile as a studio when we can bounce information back and forth to each other. As a Lead make sure you understand the strengths of your teammates, some people may prefer to be texture artists, work in the engine, or strictly work on modeling, but keep their interest in mind and assign them tasks that will make them as beneficial as possible to the team. If you have generalized people who just say “I’m designing”, start by asking what their specific interest in design is, and if nothing comes from it then you can begin to place them where attention is needed. No one is just a “Game Designer”, they should have a specific skill or interest that they enjoy working on in Game Development Production. However, if they don’t, this is the perfect opportunity to dive deep into something and come out of this class with a new skill learned, after all, that is one of the many reasons to partake in the studio course. There will be a lot of things you encounter as a lead, but just make sure that your vision is consistent from beginning to end. Voice opinions and ideas back and forth, continuously check for work in progress assignments. Give feedback whenever possible to guide and push your visions on the right track. In 10 weeks we collectively worked together to make our ideas become reality, all from scratch. We started from pencil and paper to a full-on 3D environment that you can run around in. At the end of the day your either fail together or succeed together, so communicate, have each other’s back, work through problems together, keep fighting in those moments where you might be struggling or aren’t pushing out as much content as you want, and see your ideas through and you will begin to see the small pieces come together to make the bigger picture. 


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